Dover: The coastal constituency on the front line of migration

Residents in the famous port tell The National what their priorities are in the general election

Powered by automated translation

Craig Collins’ fishing tackle shop in Dover sits just a few hundred metres from the dock where migrants are brought ashore after being picked up while crossing the English Channel in small boats.

After being processed, they are spirited out of the port on buses.

Ironically, despite being acutely aware of their presence, he never actually sees any of the people his hometown has become so associated with.

“They get ghosted off, put in covered tents and shipped out,” 41-year-old Mr Collins tells The National.

It’s got a bad reputation and when people think of us now, they think of the boats, of detention and people drowning in the channel - which is a horrible thing
Rachel Fellows, Dover resident

Migration has come to haunt the UK’s Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, who promised to “stop the boats” only to see high numbers continue to arrive. At the same time his policy of using the threat of being sent to Rwanda as a deterrent has ground through Parliament and the courts. The first flight is unlikely to take place before the election.

The defection of the town’s MP, Natalie Elphicke, from Mr Sunak’s ruling Conservatives to the opposition Labour Party, citing his failure to deal with the boats, in many ways embodies the problems facing Mr Sunak in the coming general election.

As campaigning gets into full swing, The National went to Dover to hear what local people think about their town being on the front line of the migration debate, and if that will affect how they will vote.

Sitting behind the counter of Bill’s Bait & Tackle, waiting for the customers heading out to sea on a Bank Holiday, Dover-born-and-bred Mr Collins is more than happy to share his many views on the general election.

Mr Collins is a supporter of Brexit and a believer in controlled immigration, though he takes pride in saying he has “Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews – you name it” as customers.

He believes that Labour leader Keir Starmer should not scrap the Rwanda plan as he has promised if the party's current poll lead translates into victory.

“It needs to be given a proper crack and if it doesn’t work after 18 months then fair enough, scrap it,” he said, adding that the process has merely “lined the pockets of solicitors that know the law is upside down and inside out”.

Tackling the boats

Dover's struggles have not been lost on opposition political parties, who see the Conservatives' failure to deal with migration and the deprivation that blights many parts of the town as an opportunity to pick up votes.

At the last general election in 2019, Mrs Elphicke won with a 12,000 majority over Labour. Her old party is in the process of selecting its candidate for this year's vote.

Nigel Farage, a leading figure in the populist Reform party and driving force in Brexit, was in town on Tuesday to hold a press conference in which he railed at the Tories’ failure to deal with small boats. So far this year, 10,000 have arrived and the summer, when there is an increase in crossings, has only just begun.

He said the Kent seafront was the “front line of the great national debate on immigration”.

Labour has wasted no time either. An enormous photo of its candidate, former Intelligence Corps soldier Mike Tapp, complete with medals, sits on the side of a building along the seafront road from Mr Collins’ shop.

As he was out campaigning with his team of activists knocking on doors, Mr Tapp took time to speak to The National.

Mr Tapp, who went on to work for the National Crime Agency, the UK’s FBI, and in counterterrorism at the Ministry of Defence, believes Labour can pick up votes with its promise to crack down on people smuggling gangs. This includes deploying MI5, the UK's internal counter-intelligence and security agency.

“That’s a massive policy because the tools and powers that we can bring to bear will be very similar to what we battle counterterrorism with,” he said.

“I've worked tackling serious organised crime and on counterterrorism, and I can see the difference that makes. We will also speed up the processing so we can return those who shouldn’t be here.

“There were 400 crossings in 2018 and this year, we're breaking all the records. This means a lot to people and we do need to change that and people realise that.”

Dover is, of course, home to the White Cliffs, one of the UK’s instantly recognisable landmarks and one loaded with patriotic symbolism.

The large numbers of tourists visiting the cliffs and Dover Castle have helped to offset the loss of jobs in the docks, but the town has struggled economically in recent years.

A new high-speed train service to London, revamped promenade and new shops and restaurants in the St James area have had a positive impact.

But while estate agents advertise houses for sale at £700,000 ($892,600) and yacht brokers at the new marina are offering £279,000 vessels ($355,766), there are also three pawn brokers and empty premises in the town centre.

The processing centre for the migrants arriving is tucked away in an area adjected to the marina that is only visible from a hill overlooking it.

Town needs love

The flimsy boats they used to cross the channel are stored in the car park of a discrete warehouse on an industrial estate, protected by two layers of high fencing, which can only be viewed by walking up a steep hill in a country park.

It is clear the UK government wants the migrants to have as little presence as possible in the town. Many of its residents too, would like other problems addressed and the stigma to be removed.

In the centre of town, Rachel Fellows and John Regan took time out from handing out flyers for their amateur dramatics company’s production of The Addams Family to speak to The National.

Ms Fellows, 34, who is from Dover, works in marketing and says she is “likely to vote Labour” at the election and wants there to be focus on regeneration of the town, not just small boats and migration.

“It’s got a bad reputation and when people think of us now, they think of the boats, of detention and people drowning in the Channel, which is a horrible thing,” she said.

“The main issue for me is the town, which is very dilapidated and needs some love and regeneration.

“But we’ve got a lot going for us. I love the sense of community here. We've got lots of grassroots groups, lots of arts and creativity here, and also fabulous historical links as well.”

Mr Regan, 57, a school dinner man, also volunteers to help migrants through Citizens UK, a grassroots alliance of local communities.

He believes that the local people’s attitudes towards migrants are changing and becoming more favourable.

“They don't trust what they're hearing from the government, who are saying we’re going to make them criminals and send them to Rwanda,” he said.

“When I talk to people, I think a lot of them think that they got a right to a safe life.

“People have changed. They’ve heard a lot of rhetoric from the Tory government over the years they don’t agree with.

“When people live on the coast and see people coming in on boats you can see how terrifying it is for them.”

Both agree there should be more safe routes for asylum seekers to come to the UK safely rather than having to risk their lives in small boats.

“Immigration is very big around here, but we need safe passages for people to come over here,” said Ms Fellows.

One woman The National spoke to said she has never voted in her life but is thinking about voting Labour after funding cuts to the local authority child support organisation she works for.

“It was Labour who set it up when they were in government and I don’t want to see these cuts, so I might vote for them,” said the 31-year-old, who asked not to be named.

Mr Collins also thinks there are other issues facing Dover apart from migration that need to be dealt with by politicians, including deprivation and high rents.

More help for small businesses such as his, such as a cut in the VAT sales tax from 20 to 15 per cent, would allow them to thrive

Bellwether seat

Yet for all the problems the town faces, he shares the pride many people in Dover have for their town.

“There's nowhere else like it. People say it's a hovel, and my reaction is 'well leave if you don't like it'. A lot of people do. And then they come back again.”

When it comes to who he will vote for, he is non-committal, saying: “I’m on the fence at the minute and I’ll probably make my mind up the day before.”

Out campaigning, Mr Tapp is confident he will be able to win over voters like Mr Collins and says he has been coming across “Tory switcher after Tory switcher” when knocking on doors.

Dover is “a bellwether seat” but it is one of many Labour needs to win to secure a decent majority, mainly among those constituencies that went from Labour to the Conservatives in 2019, the so-called Red Wall.

“If this is the last seat that we win statistically then we’re only going to have a majority of seven or eight,” he said.

Mr Tapp insists he is confident the changes made by Mr Starmer, after the divisive years of Jeremy Corbyn, can restore Labour’s electoral fortunes.

“They see that we're a changed party and what a turnaround in such a short period of time, and I'll say I wouldn't have stood under the last administration,” he said.

“I can confidently stand up and be proud and say that I trust the Labour Party on defence and security, on the borders, on policing, of course [on] the NHS, education, and all the other big issues that we need to fix.”

For the people of Dover, they will hope whichever party comes into power can restore its reputation.

Updated: June 06, 2024, 11:56 AM